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TUCoPS :: Cyber Culture :: lifevirt.txt

A slice of life in my virtual community




                A SLICE OF LIFE IN MY VIRTUAL COMMUNITY

                     by Howard Rheingold  June 1992

Editor
Whole Earth Review
27 Gate Five Road
Sausalito, CA 94965
Tel: 415 332 1716
Fax: 415 332 3110
Internet: hlr@well.sf.ca.us

[[[Note: In 1988, _Whole Earth Review_ published my article, "Virtual
Communities." Four years later, I reread it and realized that I had
learned a few things, and that the world I was observing had changed.
So I rewrote it. The original version is available on the WELL as
/uh/72/hlr/virtual_communities88.

Portions of this will appear in "Globalizing Networks: Computers and
International Communication," edited by Linda Harasim and Jan Walls for
MIT press. Portions of this will appear in "Virtual Communities," by
Howard Rheingold, Addison-Wesley. Portions of this may find their way
into Whole Earth Review.

This is a world-readable file, and I think these are important issues;
encourage distribution, but I do ask for fair use: Don't remove my name
from my words when you quote or reproduce them, don't change them, and
don't impair my ability to make a living with them.  Howard Rheingold]]]

    I'm a writer, so I spend a lot of time alone in a room with my words
and my thoughts. On occasion, I venture outside to interview people or
to find information. After work, I reenter the human community, via my
family, my neighborhood, my circle of acquaintances. But that regime
left me feeling isolated and lonely during the working day, with few
opportunities to expand my circle of friends. For the past seven years,
however, I have participated in a wide-ranging, intellectually
stimulating, professionally rewarding, sometimes painful, and often
intensely emotional ongoing interchange with dozens of new friends,
hundreds of colleagues, thousands of acquaintances. And I still spend
many of my days in a room, physically isolated. My mind, however, is
linked with a worldwide collection of like-minded (and not so like-
minded) souls: My virtual community.

    Virtual communities emerged from a surprising intersection of
humanity and technology. When the ubiquity of the world
telecommunications network is combined with the information-structuring
and storing capabilities of computers, a new communication medium
becomes possible. As we've learned from the history of the telephone,
radio, television, people can adopt new communication media and redesign
their way of life with surprising rapidity. Computers, modems, and
communication networks furnish the technological infrastructure of
computer-mediated communication (CMC); cyberspace is the conceptual
space where words and human relationships, data and wealth and power are
manifested by people using CMC technology; virtual communities are
cultural aggregations that emerge when enough people bump into each
other often enough in cyberspace.

    A virtual community as they exist today is a group of people who may 
or may not meet one another face to face, and who exchange words and 
ideas through the mediation of computer bulletin boards and networks. In 
cyberspace, we chat and argue, engage in intellectual intercourse, 
perform acts of commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, 
make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and 
lose them, play games and metagames, flirt, create a little high art and 
a lot of idle talk. We do everything people do when people get together, 
but we do it with words on computer screens, leaving our bodies behind. 
Millions of us have already built communities where our identities 
commingle and interact electronically, independent of local time or 
location. The way a few of us live now might be the way a larger 
population will live, decades hence. 

    The pioneers are still out there exploring the frontier, the borders 
of the domain have yet to be determined, or even the shape of it, or the 
best way to find one's way in it. But people are using the technology of 
computer-mediated communications CMC technology to do things with each 
other that weren't possible before. Human behavior in cyberspace, as we 
can observe it and participate in it today, is going to be a crucially 
important factor. The ways in which people use CMC always will be rooted 
in human needs, not hardware or software. 

    If the use of virtual communities turns out to answer a deep and 
compelling need in people, and not just snag onto a human foible like 
pinball or pac-man, today's small online enclaves may grow into much 
larger networks over the next twenty years. The potential for social 
change is a side-effect of the trajectory of telecommunications and 
computer industries, as it can be forecast for the next ten years. This 
odd social revolution -- communities of people who may never or rarely 
meet face to face -- might piggyback on the technologies that the 
biggest telecommunication companies already are planning to install over 
the next ten years. 

    It is possible that the hardware and software of a new global 
telecommunications infrastructure, orders of magnitude more powerful 
than today's state of the art, now moving from the laboratories to the 
market, will expand the reach of this spaceless place throughout the 
1990s to a much wider population than today's hackers, technologists, 
scholars, students, and enthusiasts. The age of the online pioneers will 
end soon, and the cyberspace settlers will come en-masse. Telecommuters 
who might have thought they were just working from home and avoiding one 
day of gridlock on the freeway will find themselves drawn into a whole 
new society. Students and scientists are already there, artists have 
made significant inroads, librarians and educators have their own 
pioneers as well, and political activists of all stripes have just begun 
to discover the power of plugging a computer into a telephone. When 
today's millions become tens and hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, 
what kind of place, and what kind of model for human behavior will they 
find? 

    Today's bedroom electronic bulletin boards, regional computer 
conferencing systems, global computer networks offer clues to what might 
happen when more powerful enabling technology comes along. The hardware 
for amplifying the computing and communication capacity of every home on 
the world-grid is in the pipeline, although the ultimate applications 
are not yet clear. We'll be able to transfer the Library of Congress 
from any point on the globe to any another point in seconds, upload and 
download full-motion digital video at will. But is that really what 
people are likely to do with all that bandwidth and computing power? 
Some of the answers have to come from the behavioral rather than the 
technological part of the system. How will people actually use the 
desktop supercomputers and multimedia telephones that the engineers tell 
us we'll have in the near future. 

    One possibility is that people are going to do what people always do 
with a new communication technology: use it in ways never intended or 
foreseen by its inventors, to turn old social codes inside out and make 
new kinds of communities possible. CMC will change us, and change our 
culture, the way telephones and televisions and cheap video cameras 
changed us -- by altering the way we perceive and communicate. Virtual 
communities transformed my life profoundly, years ago, and continue to 
do so.  

                A Cybernaut's Eye View  

    The most important clues to the shape of the future at this point 
might not be found in looking more closely at the properties of silicon, 
but in paying attention to the ways people need to, fail to, and try to 
communicate with one another. Right now, some people are convinced that 
spending hours a day in front of a screen, typing on a keyboard, 
fulfills in some way our need for a community of peers. Whether we have 
discovered something wonderful or stumbled into something insidiously 
unwonderful, or both, the fact that people want to use CMC to meet other 
people and experiment with identity are valuable signposts to possible 
futures. Human behavior in cyberspace, as we can observe it today on the 
nets and in the BBSs, gives rise to important questions about the 
effects of communication technology on human values. What kinds of 
humans are we becoming in an increasingly computer-mediated world, and 
do we have any control over that transformation? How have our 
definitions of "human" and "community" been under pressure to change to 
fit the specifications of a technology-guided civilization? 

    Fortunately, questions about the nature of virtual communities are 
not purely theoretical, for there is a readily accessible example of the 
phenomenon at hand to study. Millions of people now inhabit the social 
spaces that have grown up on the world's computer networks, and this 
previously invisible global subculture has been growing at a monstrous 
rate recently (e.g., the Internet growing by 25% per month). 

    I've lived here myself for seven years; the WELL and the net have 
been a regular part of my routine, like gardening on Sunday, for one 
sixth of my life thus far. My wife and daughter long ago grew accustomed 
to the fact that I sit in front of my computer early in the morning and 
late at night, chuckling and cursing, sometimes crying, about something 
I am reading on the computer screen. The questions I raise here are not 
those of a scientist, or of a polemicist who has found an answer to 
something, but as a user -- a nearly obsessive user -- of CMC and a deep 
mucker-about in virtual communities. What kind of people are my friends 
and I becoming? What does that portend for others? 

    If CMC has a potential, it is in the way people in so many parts of 
the net fiercely defend the use of the term "community" to describe the 
relationships we have built online. But fierceness of belief is not 
sufficient evidence that the belief is sound. Is the aura of community 
an illusion? The question has not been answered, and is worth asking. 
I've seen people hurt by interactions in virtual communities. Is 
telecommunication culture capable of becoming something more than what 
Scott Peck calls a "pseudo-community," where people lack the genuine 
personal commitments to one another that form the bedrock of genuine 
community? Or is our notion of "genuine" changing in an age where more 
people every day live their lives in increasingly artificial 
environments? New technologies tend to change old ways of doing things. 
Is the human need for community going to be the next technology 
commodity? 

    I can attest that I and thousands of other cybernauts know that what 
we are looking for, and finding in some surprising ways, is not just 
information, but instant access to ongoing relationships with a large 
number of other people. Individuals find friends and groups find shared 
identities online, through the aggregated networks of relationships and 
commitments that make any community possible. But are relationships and 
commitments as we know them even possible in a place where identities 
are fluid? The physical world, known variously as "IRL" ("In Real 
Life"), or "offline," is a place where the identity and position of the 
people you communicate with are well known, fixed, and highly visual. In 
cyberspace, everybody is in the dark. We can only exchange words with 
each other -- no glances or shrugs or ironic smiles. Even the nuances of 
voice and intonation are stripped away. On top of the technology-imposed 
constraints, we who populate cyberspace deliberately experiment with 
fracturing traditional notions of identity by living as multiple 
simultaneous personae in different virtual neighborhoods. 

    We reduce and encode our identities as words on a screen, decode and 
unpack the identities of others. The way we use these words, the stories 
(true and false) we tell about ourselves (or about the identity we want 
people to believe us to be) is what determines our identities in 
cyberspace. The aggregation of personae, interacting with each other, 
determines the nature of the collective culture. Our personae, 
constructed from our stories of who we are, use the overt topics of 
discussion in a BBS or network for a more fundamental purpose, as means 
of interacting with each other. And all this takes place on both public 
and private levels, in many-to-many open discussions and one-to-one 
private electronic mail, front stage role-playing and backstage 
behavior. 

    When I'm online, I cruise through my conferences, reading and 
replying in topics that I've been following, starting my own topics when 
the inspiration or need strikes me. Every few minutes, I get a notice on 
my screen that I have incoming mail. I might decide to wait to read the 
mail until I'm finished doing something else, or drop from the 
conference into the mailer, to see who it is from. At the same time that 
I am participating in open discussion in conferences and private 
discourse in electronic mail, people I know well use "sends" -- a means 
of sending one or two quick sentences to my screen without the 
intervention of an electronic mail message. This can be irritating 
before you get used to it, since you are either reading or writing 
something else when it happens, but eventually it becomes a kind of 
rhythm: different degrees of thoughtfulness and formality happen 
simultaneously, along with the simultaneous multiple personae. Then 
there are public and private conferences that have partially overlapping 
memberships. CMC offers tools for facilitating all the various ways 
people have discovered to divide and communicate, group and subgroup and 
regroup, include and exclude, select and elect. 

    When a group of people remain in communication with one another for 
extended periods of time, the question of whether it is a community 
arises. Virtual communities might be real communities, they might be 
pseudocommunities, or they might be something entirely new in the realm 
of social contracts, but I believe they are in part a response to the 
hunger for community that has followed the disintegration of traditional 
communities around the world. 

    Social norms and shared mental models have not emerged yet, so 
everyone's sense of what kind of place cyberspace is can vary widely, 
which makes it hard to tell whether the person you are communicating 
with shares the same model of the system within which you are 
communicating. Indeed, the online acronym YMMV ("Your Mileage May Vary") 
has become shorthand for this kind of indeterminacy of shared context. 
For example, I know people who use vicious online verbal combat as a way 
of blowing off steam from the pressures of their real life -- "sport 
hassling" -- and others who use it voyeuristically, as a text-based form 
of real-life soap-opera. To some people, it's a game. And I know people 
who feel as passionately committed to our virtual community and the 
people in it (or at least some of the people in it) as our nation, 
occupation, or neighborhood. Whether we like it or not, the 
communitarians and the venters, the builders and the vandals, the 
egalitarians and the passive-aggressives, are all in this place 
together. The diversity of the communicating population is one of the 
defining characteristics of the new medium, one of its chief 
attractions, the source of many of its most vexing problems. 

    Is the prospect of moving en-masse into cyberspace in the near 
future, when the world's communication network undergoes explosive 
expansion of bandwidth, a beneficial thing for entire populations to do? 
In which ways might the growth of virtual communities promote 
alienation? How might virtual communities facilitate conviviality? Which 
social structures will dissolve, which political forces will arise, and 
which will lose power? These are questions worth asking now, while there 
is still time to shape the future of the medium. In the sense that we 
are traveling blind into a technology-shaped future that might be very 
different from today's culture, direct reports from life in different 
corners of the world's online cultures today might furnish valuable 
signposts to the territory ahead. 

    Since the summer of 1985, I've spent an average of two hours a day, 
seven days a week, often when I travel, plugged into the WELL (Whole 
Earth 'Lectronic Link) via a computer and a telephone line, exchanging 
information and playing with attention, becoming entangled In Real Life, 
with a growing network of similarly wired-in strangers I met in 
cyberspace. I remember the first time I walked into a room full of 
people (IRL) whose faces were completely unknown to me, but who knew 
many intimate details of my history, and whose own stories I knew very 
well. I had contended with these people, shot the breeze around the 
electronic water cooler, shared alliances and formed bonds, fallen off 
my chair laughing with them, become livid with anger at these people, 
but I had not before seen their faces. 

    I found this digital watering hole for information-age hunters and 
gatherers the same way most people find such places -- I was lonely, 
hungry for intellectual and emotional companionship, although I didn't 
know it. While many commuters dream of working at home, telecommuting, I 
happen to know what it's like to work that way. I never could stand to 
commute or even get out of my pajamas if I didn't want to, so I've 
always worked at home. It has its advantages and its disadvantages. 
Others like myself also have been drawn into the online world because 
they shared with me the occupational hazard of the self-employed, home-
based symbolic analyst of the 1990s -- isolation. The kind of people 
that Robert Reich, call "symbolic analysts" are natural matches for 
online communities: programmers, writers, freelance artists and 
designers, independent radio and television producers, editors, 
researchers, librarians. People who know what to do with symbols, 
abstractions, and representations, but who sometimes find themselves 
spending more time with keyboards and screens than human companions. 

    I've learned that virtual communities are very much like other 
communities in some ways, deceptively so to those who assume that people 
who communicate via words on a screen are in some way aberrant in their 
communication skills and human needs. And I've learned that virtual 
communities are very much not like communities in some other ways, 
deceptively so to those who assume that people who communicate via words 
on a screen necessarily share the same level of commitment to each other 
in real life as more traditional communities. Communities can emerge 
from and exist within computer-linked groups, but that technical linkage 
of electronic personae is not sufficient to create a community.  

     Social Contracts, Reciprocity, and Gift Economies in Cyberspace

    The network of communications that constitutes a virtual community 
can include the exchange of information as a kind of commodity, and the 
economic implications of this phenomenon are significant; the ultimate 
social potential of the network, however, lies not solely in its utility 
as an information market, but in the individual and group relationships 
that can happen over time. When such a group accumulates a sufficient 
number of friendships and rivalries, and witnesses the births, 
marriages, and deaths that bond any other kind of community, it takes on 
a definite and profound sense of place in people's minds. Virtual 
communities usually have a geographically local focus, and often have a 
connection to a much wider domain. The local focus of my virtual 
community, the WELL, is the San Francisco Bay Area; the wider locus 
consists of hundreds of thousands of other sites around the world, and 
millions of other communitarians, linked via exchanges of messages into 
a meta-community known as "the net." 

    The existence of computer-linked communities was predicted twenty 
years ago by J.C.R. Licklider and Robert Taylor, who as research 
directors for the Department of Defense, set in motion the research that 
resulted in the creation of the first such community, the ARPAnet: "What 
will on-line interactive communities be like?" Licklider and Taylor 
wrote, in 1968: "In most fields they will consist of geographically 
separated members, sometimes grouped in small clusters and sometimes 
working individually. They will be communities not of common location, 
but of common interest..." 

    My friends and I sometimes believe we are part of the future that 
Licklider dreamed about, and we often can attest to the truth of his 
prediction that "life will be happier for the on-line individual because 
the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more 
by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity." I 
still believe that, but I also know that life also has turned out to be 
unhappy at times, intensely so in some circumstances, because of words 
on a screen. Events in cyberspace can have concrete effects in real 
life, of both the pleasant and less pleasant varieties. Participating in 
a virtual community has not solved all of life's problems for me, but it 
has served as an aid, a comfort and an inspiration at times; at other 
times, it has been like an endless, ugly, long-simmering family brawl. 

    I've changed my mind about a lot of aspects of the WELL over the 
years, but the "sense of place" is still as strong as ever. As Ray 
Oldenburg revealed in "The Great Good Place," there are three essential 
places in every person's life: the place they live, the place they work, 
and the place they gather for conviviality. Although the casual 
conversation that takes place in cafes, beauty shops, pubs, town squares 
is universally considered to be trivial, "idle talk," Oldenburg makes 
the case that such places are where communities can arise and hold 
together. When the automobile-centric, suburban, high-rise, fast food, 
shopping mall way of life eliminated many of these "third places," the 
social fabric of existing communities shredded. It might not be the same 
kind of place that Oldenburg had in mind, but so many of his 
descriptions of "third places" could also describe the WELL. 

    The feeling of logging into the WELL for just a minute or two, 
dozens of times a day is very similar to the feeling of peeking into the 
cafe, the pub, the common room, to see who's there, and whether you want 
to stay around for a chat. Indeed, in all the hundreds of thousands of 
computer systems around the world that use the UNIX operating system, as 
does the WELL, the most widely used command is the one that shows you 
who is online. Another widely used command is the one that shows you a 
particular user's biography. 

    I visit the WELL both for the sheer pleasure of communicating with 
my newfound friends, and for its value as a practical instrument 
forgathering information on subjects that are of momentary or enduring 
importance, from child care to neuroscience, technical questions on 
telecommunications to arguments on philosophical, political, or 
spiritual subjects. It's a bit like a neighborhood pub or coffee shop. 
It's a little like a salon, where I can participate in a hundred ongoing 
conversations with people who don't care what I look like or sound like, 
but who do care how I think and communicate. There are seminars and word 
fights in different corners. And it's all a little like a groupmind, 
where questions are answered, support is given, inspiration is provided, 
by people I may have never heard from before, and whom I may never meet 
face to face.  

    Because we cannot see one another, we are unable to form prejudices 
about others before we read what they have to say: Race, gender, age, 
national origin and physical appearance are not apparent unless a person 
wants to make such characteristics public. People who are thoughtful but 
who are not quick to formulate a reply often do better in CMC than face 
to face or over the telephone. People whose physical handicaps make it 
difficult to form new friendships find that virtual communities treat 
them as they always wanted to be treated -- as thinkers and transmitters 
of ideas and feeling beings, not carnal vessels with a certain 
appearance and way of walking and talking (or not walking and not 
talking). Don't mistake this filtration of appearances for 
dehumanization: Words on a screen are quite capable of moving one to 
laughter or tears, of evoking anger or compassion, of creating a 
community from a collection of strangers. 

    From my informal research into virtual communities around the world, 
I have found that enthusiastic members of virtual communities in Japan, 
England, and the US agree that "increasing the diversity of their circle 
of friends" was one of the most important advantages of computer 
conferencing. CMC is a way to meet people, whether or not you feel the 
need to affiliate with them on a community level, but the way you meet 
them has an interesting twist: In traditional kinds of communities, we 
are accustomed to meeting people, then getting to know them; in virtual 
communities, you can get to know people and then choose to meet them. In 
some cases, you can get to know people who you might never meet on the 
physical plane. 

    How does anybody find friends? In the traditional community, we 
search through our pool of neighbors and professional colleagues, of 
acquaintances and acquaintances of acquaintances, in order to find 
people who share our values and interests. We then exchange information 
about one another, disclose and discuss our mutual interests, and 
sometimes we become friends. In a virtual community we can go directly 
to the place where our favorite subjects are being discussed, then get 
acquainted with those who share our passions, or who use words in a way 
we find attractive. In this sense, the topic is the address: You can't 
simply pick up a phone and ask to be connected with someone who wants to 
talk about Islamic art or California wine, or someone with a three year 
old daughter or a 30 year old Hudson; you can, however, join a computer 
conference on any of those topics, then open a public or private 
correspondence with the previously-unknown people you find in that 
conference. You will find that your chances of making friends are 
magnified by orders of magnitude over the old methods of finding a peer 
group. 

    You can be fooled about people in cyberspace, behind the cloak of 
words. But that can be said about telephones or face to face 
communications, as well; computer-mediated communications provide new 
ways to fool people, and the most obvious identity-swindles will die out 
only when enough people learn to use the medium critically. Sara Kiesler 
noted that the word "phony" is an artifact of the early years of the 
telephone, when media-naive people were conned by slick talkers in ways 
that wouldn't deceive an eight-year old with a cellular phone today. 

    There is both an intellectual and an emotional component to CMC. 
Since so many members of virtual communities are the kind of knowledge-
based professionals whose professional standing can be enhanced by what 
they know, virtual communities can be practical, cold-blooded 
instruments. Virtual communities can help their members cope with 
information overload. The problem with the information age, especially 
for students and knowledge workers who spend their time immersed in the 
info-flow, is that there is too much information available and no 
effective filters for sifting the key data that are useful and 
interesting to us as individuals. Programmers are trying to design 
better and better "software agents" that can seek and sift, filter and 
find, and save us from the awful feeling one gets when it turns out that 
the specific knowledge one needs is buried in 15,000 pages of related 
information. 

    The first software agents are now becoming available (e.g., WAIS, 
Rosebud), but we already have far more sophisticated, if informal, 
social contracts among groups of people that allow us to act as software 
agents for one another. If, in my wanderings through information space, 
I come across items that don't interest me but which I know one of my 
worldwide loose-knit affinity group of online friends would appreciate, 
I send the appropriate friend a pointer, or simply forward the entire 
text (one of the new powers of CMC is the ability to publish and 
converse with the same medium). In some cases, I can put the information 
in exactly the right place for 10,000 people I don't know, but who are 
intensely interested in that specific topic, to find it when they need 
it. And sometimes, 10,000 people I don't know do the same thing for me. 

    This unwritten, unspoken social contract, a blend of strong-tie and 
weak-tie relationships among people who have a mixture of motives, 
requires one to give something, and enables one to receive something. I 
have to keep my friends in mind and send them pointers instead of 
throwing my informational discards into the virtual scrap-heap. It 
doesn't take a great deal of energy to do that, since I have to sift 
that information anyway in order to find the knowledge I seek for my own 
purposes; it takes two keystrokes to delete the information, three 
keystrokes to forward it to someone else. And with scores of other 
people who have an eye out for my interests while they explore sectors 
of the information space that I normally wouldn't frequent, I find that 
the help I receive far outweighs the energy I expend helping others: A 
marriage of altruism and self-interest. 

    The first time I learned about that particular cyberspace power was 
early in the history of the WELL, when I was invited to join a panel of 
experts who advise the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment 
(OTA). The subject of the assessment was "Communication Systems for an 
Information Age." I'm not an expert in telecommunication technology or 
policy, but I do know where to find a group of such experts, and how to 
get them to tell me what they know. Before I went to Washington for my 
first panel meeting, I opened a conference in the WELL and invited 
assorted information-freaks, technophiles, and communication experts to 
help me come up with something to say. An amazing collection of minds 
flocked to that topic, and some of them created whole new communities 
when they collided. 

    By the time I sat down with the captains of industry, government 
advisers, and academic experts at the panel table, I had over 200 pages 
of expert advice from my own panel. I wouldn't have been able to 
integrate that much knowledge of my subject in an entire academic or 
industrial career, and it only took me (and my virtual community) a few 
minutes a day for six weeks. I have found the WELL to be an outright 
magical resource, professionally. An editor or producer or client can 
call and ask me if I know much about the Constitution, or fiber optics, 
or intellectual property. "Let me get back to you in twenty minutes," I 
say, reaching for the modem. In terms of the way I learned to use the 
WELL to get the right piece of information at the right time, I'd say 
that the hours I've spent putting information into the WELL turned out 
to be the most lucrative professional investments I've ever made. 

    The same strategy of nurturing and making use of loose information-
sharing affiliations across the net can be applied to an infinite domain 
of problem areas, from literary criticism to software evaluation. It's a 
neat way for a sufficiently large, sufficiently diverse group of people 
to multiply their individual degree of expertise, and I think it could 
be done even if the people aren't involved in a community other than 
their company or their research specialty. I think it works better when 
the community's conceptual model of itself is more like barn-raising 
than horse-trading, though. Reciprocity is a key element of any market-
based culture, but the arrangement I'm describing feels to me more like 
a kind of gift economy where people do things for one another out of a 
spirit of building something between them, rather than a spreadsheet-
calculated quid pro quo. When that spirit exists, everybody gets a 
little extra something, a little sparkle, from their more practical 
transactions; different kinds of things become possible when this 
mindset pervades. Conversely, people who have valuable things to add to 
the mix tend to keep their heads down and their ideas to themselves when 
a mercenary or hostile zeitgeist dominates an online community. 

    I think one key difference between straightforward workaday 
reciprocity is that in the virtual community I know best, one valuable 
currency is knowledge, elegantly presented. Wit and use of language are 
rewarded in this medium, which is biased toward those who learn how to 
manipulate attention and emotion with the written word. Sometimes, you 
give one person more information than you would give another person in 
response to the same query, simply because you recognize one of them to 
be more generous or funny or to-the-point or agreeable to your political 
convictions than the other one. 

    If you give useful information freely, without demanding tightly-
coupled reciprocity, your requests for information are met more swiftly, 
in greater detail, than they would have been otherwise. The person  you 
help might never be in a position to help you, but someone else might 
be. That's why it is hard to distinguish idle talk from serious context-
setting. In a virtual community, idle talk is context-setting. Idle talk 
is where people learn what kind of person you are, why you should be 
trusted or mistrusted, what interests you. An agora is more than the 
site of transactions; it is also a place where people meet and size up 
one another. 

    A market depends on the quality of knowledge held by the 
participants, the buyers and sellers, about price and availability and a 
thousand other things that influence business; a market that has a forum 
for informal and back-channel communications is a better-informed 
market. The London Stock Exchange grew out of the informal transactions 
in a coffee-house; when it became the London International Stock 
Exchange a few years ago, and abolished the trading-room floor, the 
enterprise lost something vital in the transition from an old room where 
all the old boys met and cut their deals to the screens of thousands of 
workstations scattered around the world. 

    The context of the informal community of knowledge sharers grew to 
include years of both professional and personal relationships. It is not 
news that the right network of people can serve as an inquiry research 
system: You throw out the question, and somebody on the net knows the 
answer. You can make a game out of it, where you gain symbolic prestige 
among your virtual peers by knowing the answer. And you can make a game 
out of it among a group of people who have dropped out of their orthodox 
professional lives, where some of them sell these information services 
for exorbitant rates, in order to participate voluntarily in the virtual 
community game. 

    When the WELL was young and growing more slowly than it is now, such 
knowledge-potlatching had a kind of naively enthusiastic energy. When 
you extend the conversation -- several dozen different characters, well-
known to one another from four or five years of virtual hanging-out, 
several hours a day -- it gets richer, but not necessarily "happier." 

    Virtual communities have several drawbacks in comparison to face-to-
face communication, disadvantages that must be kept in mind if you are 
to make use of the power of these computer-mediated discussion groups. 
The filtration factor that prevents one from knowing the race or age of 
another participant also prevents people from communicating the facial 
expressions, body language, and tone of voice that constitute the 
inaudible but vital component of most face to face communications. 
Irony, sarcasm, compassion, and other subtle but all-important nuances 
that aren't conveyed in words alone are lost when all you can see of a 
person are words on a screen. 

    It's amazing how the ambiguity of words in the absence of body 
language inevitably leads to online misunderstandings. And since the 
physical absence of other people also seems to loosen some of the social 
bonds that prevent people from insulting one another in person, 
misunderstandings can grow into truly nasty stuff before anybody has a 
chance to untangle the original miscommunication. Heated diatribes and 
interpersonal incivility that wouldn't crop up often in face to face or 
even telephone discourse seem to appear with relative frequency in 
computer conferences. The only presently available antidote to this flaw 
of CMC as a human communication medium is widespread knowledge of this 
flaw -- aka "netiquette." 

    Online civility and how to deal with breaches of it is a topic unto 
itself, and has been much-argued on the WELL. Degrees of outright 
incivility constitute entire universes such as alt.flame, the Usenet 
newsgroup where people go specifically to spend their days hurling vile 
imprecations at one another. I am beginning to suspect that the most 
powerful and effective defense an online community has in the face of 
those who are bent on disruption might be norms and agreements about 
withdrawing attention from those who can't abide by even loose rules of 
verbal behavior. "If you continue doing that," I remember someone saying 
to a particularly persistent would-be disrupter, "we will stop paying 
attention to you." This is technically easy to do on Usenet, where 
putting the name of a person or topic header in a "kill file" (aka "bozo 
filter") means you will never see future contributions from that person 
or about that topic. You can simply choose to not see any postings from 
Rich Rosen, or that feature the word "abortion" in the title. A society 
in which people can remove one another, or even entire topics of 
discussion, from visibility. The WELL does not have a bozo filter, 
although the need for one is a topic of frequent discussion.   

                   Who Is The WELL?  

    One way to know what the WELL is like is to know something about the 
kind of people who use it. It has roots in the San Francisco Bay Area, 
and in two separate cultural revolutions that took place there in past 
decades. The Whole Earth Catalog originally emerged from the 
counterculture as Stewart Brand's way of providing access to tools and 
ideas to all the communes who were exploring alternate ways of life in 
the forests of Mendocino or the high deserts outside Santa Fe. The Whole 
Earth Catalogs and the magazines they spawned, Co-Evolution Quarterly 
and Whole Earth Review, have outlived the counterculture itself, since 
they are still alive and raising hell after nearly 25 years. For many 
years, the people who have been exploring alternatives and are open to 
ideas that you don't find in the mass media have found themselves in 
cities instead of rural communes, where their need for new tools and 
ideas didn't go away. 

    The Whole Earth Catalog crew received a large advance in the mid-
1980s to produce an updated version, a project involving many 
geographically-separated authors and editors, many of whom were using 
computers. They bought a minicomputer and the license to Picospan, a 
computer conferencing program, leased an office next to the magazine's 
office, leased incoming telephone lines, set up modems, and the WELL was 
born in 1985. The idea from the beginning was that the founders weren't 
sure what the WELL would become, but they would provide tools for people 
to build it into something useful. It was consciously a cultural 
experiment, and the business was designed to succeed or fail on the 
basis of the results of the experiment. The person Stewart Brand chose 
to be the WELL's first director -- technician, manager, innkeeper, and 
bouncer -- was Matthew McClure, not-coincidentally a computer-savvy 
veteran of The Farm, one of the most successful of the communes that 
started in the sixties. Brand and McClure started a low-rules, high-tone 
discussion, where savvy networkers, futurists, misfits who had learned 
how to make our outsiderness work for us, could take the technology of 
CMC to its cultural limits. 

    The Whole Earth network -- the granola-eating utopians, the solar-
power enthusiasts, serious ecologists and the space-station crowd, 
immortalists, Biospherians, environmentalists, social activists -- was 
part of the core population from the beginning. But there were a couple 
of other key elements. One was the subculture that happened ten years 
after the counterculture era -- the personal computer revolution. 
Personal computers and the PC industry were created by young iconoclasts 
who wanted to have whizzy tools and change the world. Whole Earth had 
honored them, including the outlaws among them, with the early Hacker's 
Conferences. The young computer wizards, and the grizzled old hands who 
were still messing with mainframes, showed up early at the WELL because 
the guts of the system itself -- the UNIX operating system and "C" 
language programming code -- were available for tinkering by responsible 
craftsmen. 

    A third cultural element that made up the initial mix of the WELL, 
which has drifted from its counterculture origins in many ways, were the 
deadheads. Books and theses have been written about the subculture that 
have grown up around the band, the Grateful Dead. The deadheads have a 
strong feeling of community, but they can only manifest it en masse when 
the band has concerts. They were a community looking for a place to 
happen when several technology-savvy deadheads started a "Grateful Dead 
Conference" on the WELL. GD was so phenomenally successful that for the 
first several years, deadheads were by far the single largest source of 
income for the enterprise. 

    Along with the other elements came the first marathon swimmers in 
the new currents of the information streams, the futurists and writers 
and journalists. The New York Times, Business Week, the San Francisco 
Chronicle, Time, Rolling Stone, Byte, the Wall Street Journal all have 
journalists that I know personally who drop into the WELL as a listening 
post. People in Silicon Valley lurk to hear loose talk among the pros. 
Journalists tend to attract other journalists, and the purpose of 
journalists is to attract everybody else: most people have to use an old 
medium to hear news about the arrival of a new medium. 

    Things changed, both rapidly and slowly, in the WELL. There were 
about 600 members of the WELL when I joined, in the summer of 1985. It 
seemed that then, as now, the usual ten percent of the members did 80% 
of the talking. Now there are about 6000 people, with a net gain of 
about a hundred a month. There do seem to be more women than other parts 
of cyberspace. Most of the people I meet seem to be white or Asian; 
African-Americans aren't missing, but they aren't conspicuous or even 
visible. If you can fake it, gender and age are invisible, too. I'd 
guess the WELL consists of about 80% men, 20% women. I don't know 
whether formal demographics would be the kind of thing that most WELL 
users would want to contribute to. It's certainly something we'd 
discuss, argue, debate, joke about. 

    One important social rule was built into Picospan, the software that 
the WELL lives inside: Nobody is anonymous. Everybody is required to 
attach their real "userid" to their postings. It is possible to use 
pseudonyms to create alternate identities, or to carry metamessages, but 
the pseudonyms are always linked in every posting to the real userid. So 
individual personae -- whether or not they correspond closely to the 
real person who owns the account -- are responsible for the words they 
post. In fact, the first several years, the screen that you saw when you 
reached the WELL said "You own your own words." Stewart Brand, the 
WELL's co-founder likes epigrams: "Whole Earth," "Information wants to 
be free." "You own your own words." Like the best epigrams, "You own 
your own words" is open to multiple interpretations. The matter of 
responsibility and ownership of words is one of the topics WELLbeings 
argue about endlessly, so much that the phrase has been abbreviated to 
"YOYOW," As in, "Oh no, another YOYOW debate." 

    Who are the WELL members, and what do they talk about? I can tell 
you about the individuals I have come to know over six years, but the 
WELL has long since been something larger than the sum of everybody's 
friends. The characteristics of the pool of people who tune into this 
electronic listening post, whether or not they every post a word in 
public, is a strong determinant of the flavor of the "place." There's a 
cross-sectional feeling of "who are we?" that transcends the 
intersecting and non-intersecting rings of friends and acquaintances 
each individual develops.  My Neighborhood On The WELL  

    Every CMC system gives users tools for creating their own sense of 
place, by customizing the way they navigate through the database of 
conferences, topics, and responses. A conference or newsgroup is like a 
place you go. If you go to several different places in a fixed order, it 
seems to reinforce the feeling of place by creating a customized 
neighborhood that is also shared by others. You see some of the same 
users in different parts of the same neighborhood. Some faces, you see 
only in one context -- the parents conference, the Grateful Dead tours 
conference, the politics or sex conference. 

    My home neighborhood on the WELL is reflected in my ".cflist," the 
file that records my preferences about the order of conferences I visit. 
It is always possible to go to any conference with a command, but with a 
.cflist you structure your online time by going from conference to 
specified conference at regular intervals, reading and perhaps 
responding in several ongoing threads in several different places. 
That's the part of the art of discourse where I have found that the 
computer adds value to the intellectual activity of discussing formally 
distinct subjects asynchronously, from different parts of the world, 
over extending periods, by enabling groups to structure conversations by 
topic, over time. 

    My .cflist starts, for sentimental reasons, with the Mind 
conference, the first one I hosted on the WELL, since 1985. I've changed 
my .cflist hundreds of times over the years, to add or delete 
conferences from my regular neighborhood, but I've always kept Mind in 
the lede. The entry banner screen for the Mind conference used to 
display to each user the exact phase of the moon in numbers and ASCII 
graphics every time they logged in to the conference. But the volunteer 
programmer who had created the "phoon" program had decided to withdraw 
it, years later, in a dispute with WELL management. There is often a 
technological fix to a social problem within this particular universe. 
Because the WELL seems to be an intersection of many different cultures, 
there have been many experiments with software tools to ameliorate 
problems that seemed to crop up between people, whether because of the 
nature of the medium or the nature of the people. A frighteningly 
expensive pool of talent was donated by volunteer programmers to create 
tools and even weapons for WELL users to deal with each other. People 
keep giving things to the WELL, and taking them away. Offline readers 
and online tools by volunteer programmers gave others increased power to 
communicate. 

    The News conference is what's next. This is the commons, the place 
where the most people visit the most often, where the most outrageous 
off-topic proliferation is least pernicious, where the important 
announcements about the system or social events or major disputes or new 
conferences are announced. When an earthquake or fire happens, News is 
where you want to go. Immediately after the 1989 earthquake and during 
the Oakland fire of 1991, the WELL was a place to check the damage to 
the local geographic community, lend help to those who need it, and get 
first-hand reports. During Tienamen square, the Gulf War, the Soviet 
Coup, the WELL was a media-funnel, with snippets of email from Tel-Aviv 
and entire newsgroups fed by fax machines in China, erupting in News 
conference topics that grew into fast-moving conferences of their own. 
During any major crisis in the real world, the routine at our house is 
to turn on CNN and log into the WELL. 

    After News is Hosts, where the hottest stuff usually happens. The 
hosts community is a story in itself. The success of the WELL in its 
first five years, all would agree, rested heavily on the efforts of the 
conference hosts -- online characters who had created the character of 
the first neighborhoods and kept the juice flowing between one another 
all over the WELL, but most pointedly in the Hosts conference. Some 
spicy reading in the Archives conference originated from old hosts' 
disputes - and substantial arguments about the implications of CMC for 
civil rights, intellectual property, censorship, by a lot of people who 
know what they are talking about, mixed liberally with a lot of other 
people who don't know what they are talking about, but love to talk 
anyway, via keyboard and screen, for years on end. 

    In this virtual place, the pillars of the community and the worst 
offenders of public sensibilities are in the same group -- the hosts. At 
their best and their worst, this ten percent of the online population 
put out the words that the other ninety percent keep paying to read. 
Like good hosts at any social gathering, they make newcomers welcome, 
keep the conversation flowing, mediate disputes, clean up messes, and 
throw out miscreants, if need be. A WELL host is part salon keeper, part 
saloon keeper, part talk-show host, part publisher. The only power to 
censor or to ban a user is the hosts' power. Policy varies from host to 
host, and that's the only policy. The only justice for those who misuse 
that power is the forced participation in weeks of debilitating and 
vituperative post-mortem. 

    The hosts community is part long-running soap opera, part town 
meeting, bar-room brawl, anarchic debating society, creative groupmind, 
bloody arena, union hall, playpen, encounter group. The Hosts conference 
is extremely general, from technical questions to personal attacks. The 
Policy conference is supposed to be restricted to matters of what WELL 
policy is, or ought to be. The part-delusion, part-accurate perception 
that the hosts and other users have strong influence over WELL policy is 
part of what feeds debate here, and a strong element in the libertarian 
reputation of the stereotypical WELLite. After fighting my way through a 
day's or hour's worth of the Hot New Dispute in News, Hosts, and Policy, 
I check on the conferences I host -- Info, Virtual Communities, Virtual 
Reality. After that my .cflist directs me, at the press of the return 
key, to the first new topic or response in the Parenting, Writers', 
Grateful Dead tours, Telecommunication, Macintosh, Weird, Electronic 
Frontier Foundation, Whole Earth, Books, Media, Men on the WELL, 
Miscellaneous, and Unclear conferences. 

    The social dynamics of the WELL spawn new conferences in response to 
different kinds of pressures. Whenever a hot interpersonal or doctrinal 
issue breaks out, for example, people want to stage the brawl or make a 
dramatic farewell speech or shocking disclosure or serious accusation in 
the most heavily-visited area of the WELL, which is usually the place 
that others want to be a Commons -- a place where people from different 
sub-communities can come to find out what is going on around the WELL, 
outside the WELL, where they can pose questions to the committee of the 
whole. When too many discussions of what the WELL's official policy 
ought to be, about censorship or intellectual property or the way people 
treat each other, break out, they tended to clutter the place people 
went to get a quick sense of what is happening outside their 
neighborhoods. So the Policy conference was born. 

    But then the WELL grew larger and it wasn't just policy but 
governance and social issues like political correctness or the right of 
users to determine the social rules of the system. Several years and six 
thousand more users after the fission of the News and Policy 
conferences, another conference split off News -- "MetaWELL,"  a 
conference was created strictly to discussions about the WELL itself, it 
nature, its situation (often dire), its future. 

    Grabbing attention in the Commons is a powerful act. Some people 
seem drawn to performing there; others burst out there in acts of 
desperation, after one history of frustration or another. Dealing with 
people who are so consistently off-topic or apparently deeply grooved 
into incoherence, long-windedness, scatology, is one of the events that 
challenges a community to decide what its values really are, or ought to 
be. 

    Something is happening here. I'm not sure anybody understands it 
yet. I know that the WELL and the net is an important part of my life 
and I have to decide for myself whether this is a new way to make 
genuine commitments to other human beings, or a silicon-induced illusion 
of community. I urge others to help pursue that question in a variety of 
ways, while we have the time. The political dimensions of CMC might lead 
to situations that would pre-empt questions of other social effects; 
responses to the need for understanding the power-relationships inherent 
in CMC are well represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and 
others. We need to learn a lot more, very quickly, about what kind of 
place our minds are homesteading. 

    The future of virtual communities is connected to the future of 
everything else, starting with the most precious thing people have to 
gain or lose -- political freedom. The part played by communication 
technologies in the disintegration of communism, the way broadcast 
television pre-empted the American electoral process, the power of fax 
and CMC networks during times of political repression like Tienamen 
Square and the Soviet Coup attempt, the power of citizen electronic 
journalism, the power-maneuvering of law enforcement and intelligence 
agencies to restrict rights of citizen access and expression in 
cyberspace, all point to the future of CMC as a close correlate of 
future political scenarios. More important than civilizing cyberspace is 
ensuring its freedom as a citizen-to-citizen communication and 
publication medium; laws that infringe equity of access to and freedom 
of expression in cyberspace could transform today's populist empowerment 
into yet another instrument of manipulation. Will "electronic democracy" 
be an accurate description of political empowerment that grows out of 
the screen of a computer? Or will it become a brilliant piece of 
disinfotainment, another means of manipulating emotions and 
manufacturing public opinion in the service of power. 

    Who controls what kinds of information is communicated in the 
international networks where virtual communities live? Who censors, and 
what is censored? Who safeguards the privacy of individuals in the face 
of technologies that make it possible to amass and retrieve detailed 
personal information about every member of a large population? The 
answers to these political questions might make moot any more abstract 
questions about cultures in cyberspace. Democracy itself depends on the 
relatively free flow of communications. The following words by James 
Madison are carved in marble at the United States Library of Congress: 
"A popular government without popular information, or the means of 
acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps 
both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to 
be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which 
knowledge gives." It is time for people to arm themselves with power 
about the future of CMC technology. 

    Who controls the market for relationships? Will the world's 
increasingly interlinked, increasingly powerful, decreasingly costly 
communications infrastructure be controlled by a small number of very 
large companies? Will cyberspace be privatized and parceled out to those 
who can afford to buy into the auction? If political forces do not seize 
the high ground and end today's freewheeling exchange of ideas, it is 
still possible for a more benevolent form of economic control to stunt 
the evolution of virtual communities, if a small number of companies 
gain the power to put up toll-roads in the information networks, and 
smaller companies are not able to compete with them. 

    Or will there be an open market, in which newcomers like Apple or 
Microsoft can become industry leaders? The playing field in the global 
telecommunications industry will never be level, but the degree of 
individual freedom available through telecommunication technologies in 
the future may depend upon whether the market for goods and services in 
cyberspace remains open for new companies to create new uses for CMC. 

    I present these observations as a set of questions, not as answers. 
I believe that we need to try to understand the nature of CMC, 
cyberspace, and virtual communities in every important context -- 
politically, economically, socially , culturally, cognitively. Each 
different perspective reveals something that the other perspectives do 
not reveal. Each different discipline fails to see something that 
another discipline sees very well. We need to think as teams here, 
across boundaries of academic discipline, industrial affiliation, 
nation, to understand, and thus perhaps regain control of, the way human 
communities are being transformed by communication technologies. We 
can't do this solely as dispassionate observers, although there is 
certainly a huge need for the detached assessment of social science. But 
community is a matter of the heart and the gut as well as the head. Some 
of the most important learning will always have to be done by jumping 
into one corner or another of cyberspace, living there, and getting up 
to your elbows in the problems that virtual communities face. 

                            -- Howard Rheingold (hlr@well.sf.ca.us)


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